A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane, 2014) – The weird thing about Seth MacFarlane is that even though he’s been at the center of pop culture comedy for about a decade, the guy has really old fashion tastes. If it were somehow possible to bring back vaudeville, I’m sure he would have tried by now. But, that’s not going to happen, so he’s gone and done the next best thing and made a Western. From the opening helicopter shots of Monument Valley, MacFarlane plays homage to only the broadest and most glossy of 50s Hollywood Westerns and he does it well.
The plot comes straight of the generic Western playbook, with MacFarlane playing a loser sheep farmer in a nowhere town. He just lost his girl (Amanda Seyfried) to a smooth talking jerk with a spectacular mustache (Neil Patrick Harris, who else?) and everyone in town thinks he’s a chicken for screwing up a gunfight. So all the pieces are in place from MacFarlane to go on the hero’s journey and that journey kicks off when a beautiful women comes to town (Charlize Theron) who teaches him how to shoot a gun, fall in love, and be himself. As an added bonus, she’s also married to a super evil cowboy played by Liam Neeson. So there’s even a villain built in!
Yep, the movie is pretty by-the-numbers, but that actually works in its favor. MacFarlane isn’t an unconventional storyteller or an artist with a message. He’s a joke factory with 100s of TV episodes worth of experience a stable of writers who can hang laughs onto just about anything. So, just like how Ted took the manchild and magic best friend genre staples and spun filthy comedy gold out of them, A Million Ways to Die in the West takes old timey Western conventions and hangs enough hard R comedy to the genre’s bones make it a perfectly pleasing mainstream chuckle fest. Every bodily function, ironic racial stereotype, and pop culture reference in the MacFarlane comedy repertoire makes an appearance and the laughs come in big heaping doses. There are plenty of failed gags of course, but it’s one of those comedies where the bad jokes don’t really matter because the next joke is never more than a few seconds away. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t reach the lunatic highs of Ted (there’s nothing with quite the punch of the Flash Gordon cameo), but this flick also doesn’t have a movie-halting failed third act either. So it balances out and both of MacFarlane’s directorial efforts are about even in quality.
MacFarlane might get a lot of hate from the comedy snob community, but compared to what Adam Sandler tries to pass off as mainstream comedy once a year, the guy is practically Andy Kaufman. A Million Ways to Die in the West is exactly the type of laugh-until-you’re-in-physical-pain-without-ever-challenging-your-brain mainstream comedy that should be the norm in Hollywood. It might not offer anything other than laughs, but this type of comedy doesn’t have to. It’s odd that the movie did so poorly in theaters given that it was at least as funny as Neighbors (if less consistent). Maybe the Western setting turned off the mainstream, maybe people are just sick of seeing Seth’s face everywhere. Regardless, the movie is at least worth a look n’ a giggle as long as it’s approached with the right expectations. There’s nothing particularly special about it, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with it either. That’s faint praise, but at least deserved faint praise.
A Million Ways to Die in the West debuts on Blu-ray with a disc that was clearly transferred and stocked with extras long before the box office tallies came in. The transfer is quite impressive, with the vast Western vistas and colorful production design popping right off the screen with impressive depth. There’s a reason Hollywood cranked out so many Westerns on these location for so many years. It’s big beautiful production value defined merely by location and if nothing else, the movie looks fantastic. Audio is crisp and clear, but there’s very little ambitious sound design in the movie, so it’s hardly something that will light your speakers ablaze. Special features kick off with an Unrated Version, that should really be called be called the “rough cut” version because it’s 20 minutes longer and not much more outrageous. MacFarlane, Theron, and writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild kick in an audio commentary track on the extended edition, which is a silly, informative, and self-effacing as you’d hope (although they probably should have gone with the theatrical cut since they run out of steam in the conversation towards the end). After that comes an alternate opening, alternate ending, and deleted/extended scenes that add up to about 15 minutes of extra jokes in addition to the 20 shoved back into the film and they are all pretty superfluous (there’s also a Giovanni Ribisi-centric outtake reel if you care about such things). Three ten minute featurettes wrap things up by chatting briefly about the cast, Western setting, and cameos respectively. They’re cute, it’s just a shame no one bothered to make a real making-of doc.
So, it’s not exactly a disc overflowing with features, but there’s plenty of extra content there for the few fans of the film. There should be more, the movie is pretty damn funny by MacFarlane standards. Farts, pop culture gags, excessive violence and lewd references abound. Feel free to giggle, if you’re not above such things. (Phil Brown)